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Edinburgh Fringe 2023

Brain Hemingway

Tawnydog Productions

Genre: Musical Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Greenside @ Nicolson SQ - Fern Studio


Low Down

A musical theatre writer has a deadline to meet. Her last failed show is haunting her in more ways than one – the elephant in the room, or rather her brain, is the subject of that show – Ernest Hemingway.


You have a deadline to meet.

We’ve all been there. Listlessly looking at the empty page where the application, report, or story or whatever it is should be. But some thing is blocking you. It might be a tune on the radio that’s all of a sudden become an ear worm. Or a diverting shopping list. Now we have the phrase that regularly pops up on social media about a person – not usually a positive reference- “living rent free in your head”. This is exactly what’s happening in Erin Murray Quinlan’s “Brain Hemingway”. Set in a cramped office, with crumpled notes and papers strewn on the floor, a songwriter (also played by Quinlan) is at her desk – perched over a piano keyboard where she is picking over the notes of a phrase. She is trying to write a song – or a demo at least – and the clock is ticking. Constant hurry-up phone calls from her producer ramp up the pressure. She’s written a musical before now – about Ernest Hemingway –  with, she confesses, one good song (about Hemingway’s wife Hadley) – but the rest of the musical was a failure and this current commission is eluding her. Through the door steps the reason for the blockage – Ernest Hemingway himself. He is the current obstructive rent-free cranial tenant. She asks him to leave but it’s clear he has other plans. 

We begin to unpick the relationship in a series of witty and astute exchanges – there’s some nifty wordplay and lots of neat jokes for the Hemingway aficionados. She lays the blame for her procrastination squarely at his feet. He encourages her to write drunk and edit sober with the aid of a Hemingway Daiquiri. Which is rum, grapefruit juice, lime and maraschino – but at this moment without the last 3 ingredients.

She flounders, remembering the innocence of the child she was – in a photo with a golden retriever at her side. Perhaps the innocence can free her.  And she thinks perhaps if Hemingway leaves her alone, she can finish this commission. Hemingway offers alternatives. Pressing her to write “just one sentence of truth”, he continues to interfere – he reflects on his macho past – the 4 wives , uncertain (for him) number of children, reeling in marlin and legendary drinking – as well as serving in both World Wars. He can craft a sentence, turn a phrase, but is he helping? Or just being plain annoying? The quest to unblock her flow is released by a random phrase from Hemingway which becomes a lyric and the idea is spawned, develops and is delivered. Her one great song from her musical is reprised (and sung beautifully), then superseded by the new song, delightfully played out on a tiny postage stamp size stage by this most unlikely duo – replete with top hat and cane.

The quick fire banter is beautifully paced and is a constant delight. Both handle the mood transitions that enable this Hemingway-esque short story to pivot to a mini-musical. It’s an intriguing form and a joy to watch it unfold. 

Both performers are very adept at handling the rhythms that drive the story (and that Hemingway gives off in real-life writing and interviews.) Resplendent in grey polo neck and slacks, almost fresh from a beach walk or fishing trip, Evan Quinlan embodies Hemingway’s laconic, passive aggression and his belief that existence in the moment was the key to life. In releasing  the creative flow creatively, we recognise his genius whilst recognising the latent misogyny. 

A reminder that it’s occasionally uncomfortable – but Hemingway is the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl. Sometimes it’s the most unlikely provocation that releases the creative juices.

What’s most satisfying is the onstage chemistry, the deft pacing and satisfying arc of the story, which director Paul Boyd has cleverly and neatly brought out of the script with a well-weighted physicality.  As a festival piece it works very well – but I did yearn for a little development of a couple of themes that were just teasingly touched upon. We get enough just about enough about Hadley from the song – but what of the other wives? Ripe territory for development. 

For now, it’s a perfectly polished little gem with great comedy and moving moments and is worth catching at the snug Greenside Fern Studio.